July 13th, 2010
2010 was proclaimed The Year of Biodiversity by the UN. It’s a particularly appropriate time for Ann Eriksson’s third novel, Falling From Grace, (Brindle & Glass) to appear, and for WordWorks to ask the author some questions about it.
Ann, you are both a biologist and a novelist, an unusual combination. How hard is it to integrate science and the arts? Is there any special benefit in doing so?
I find the integration of the creative arts and science comes naturally to me and it is wonderful to be able to combine my two passions. My view of the world is very much focused through the lens of the natural world so it is not surprising that it appears in my writing and the topics I choose to explore. That’s not to say that science and/or natural history will always figure prominently in my books, I have a novel on the back burner that is set in a large city and focuses on homelessness. A different kind of ecology.
I think it’s fair to say that one of your preoccupations in Falling from Grace is smallness. What led you to make your main character, Faye, a dwarf, and her specialty the mites and other tiny insects that live in the rainforest canopy?
In 1987, my second child was born with a rare form of dwarfism. She didn’t live more than a few hours but I always wondered what her life would have been like as a person of short stature if she had lived. So when I found myself writing novels years later, it was a topic I would inevitably turn to. I did a lot of research: reading, watching movies, gathering information from organizations such as Little People of BC and Little People of America. I learned that there are over 200 forms of dwarfism, that some forms have health problems associated with them, other don’t, and that, not surprisingly, people of short stature want to be seen by the world as individuals with the same desires and emotions as everyone else. So I decided I didn’t want to write a simple examination of the life of a person of short stature. Instead I wanted to write a story that includes a main character who just happens to be small and who has her own individual perspective on life. Perspective became a main theme in the book. How we see the world, how the world sees us. Faye’s work as an entomologist came out of my research into canopy science where I went out into the ancient forests of Vancouver Island with a PhD student from the University of Victoria, Zoe Lindo, who was studying canopy mites. To a mite, Faye is a giant. It was sort of an aha moment early on in the development of the book. A small woman studying microscopic bugs in the tops of giant trees. What’s big and what’s small is a matter of perspective.
Obviously, most things are tall compared to Faye, but you make a point of emphasizing height: the old-growth trees are monsters; frequently you tell us exactly how far above the ground Faye is working; the activist Marcel is six foot five. Did you have special reasons for making us see this?
The old growth temperature rainforests on Vancouver Island, where trees can grow over 70 m tall and where we are all small, became a great setting in which to explore the theme of perspective. Part of my reason for specifying size was to evoke the majesty of the old growth trees which many readers may not have the privilege to experience first-hand, but also to emphasize different viewpoints as part of the exploration of perspective.
There’s a point in the book where Faye and her assistant, Paul, are looking up at a enormous old growth tree and Paul says, “ Sure makes me feel like a dwarf.” And Faye answers, “Me too.” An ironic moment that encapsulates what I was after. Marcel serves to offer a flipside viewpoint. He’s a very big man who suffers similar prejudices as those experienced by small people such as difficulties initiating relationships or with social acceptance and issues with an environment that is not built for someone his size. I was hoping to challenge society’s notions of “normal” by emphasizing size, both big and small, throughout the novel.
The trees Faye studies become characters in their own right. Each one has an individual designation; Rainbow gives them names; the clearcut and the felling of Bruce the Spruce read like a massacre and an execution respectively. What did you want the reader to understand about these trees?
Naming exceptional trees is a tradition here in BC and in other places. This personalization is an effective way, often used by environmentalists, to create a relationship between people and what otherwise might be seen as an inanimate object. Thus not so easily cut down. But we also know that trees are not inanimate but dynamic living beings that produce oxygen, store carbon, provide homes for a countless organisms, and play other important ecological roles such as nutrient and water cycling that benefit not only the forests that the trees inhabit but human beings as well. Forests are often referred to as the ‘lungs of the world’ and with climate change, the old wild forests are being recognized for their capacity to absorb and store carbon for long periods of time. Then there is the concept of intrinsic value, the right of something to exist for its own sake. I used to work as a park interpreter. I had a game I played with people when I took them out on a forest walk. I would pair them up and one of the pair was blindfolded and then led in a circuitous route to a tree. They would then have five or ten minutes to familiarize themselves with the tree before they were returned to the starting point. The blindfold was removed and their task then was to find their tree. The success rate was usually 100%. Like snowflakes and people, no two trees are identical, but individuals. There’s a wonderful book by Nalini Nadkarni, one of my tree climbing mentors, called Trees and Humans: Our Intimate Relationship with Trees that looks at the many ways trees and people are interconnected.
Your descriptions of rigging the trees and climbing them, and of the laboratory work preparing specimens, are convincingly authentic. Had this been part of your experience as a biologist, or did you have to embark on a lot of research?
I loved this aspect of my research. Before I started the book, I was aware there were scientists studying in the canopy, but I didn’t know much about it. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of days after I had come up with the idea of including canopy science in the novel that I was telling a friend about my idea. “Do I have the person for you!” was her response. She introduced me to Nalini Nadkarni, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington and one of the founders of the International Canopy Network. She invited me along on several research trips into the National Forests in Washington, where I met Anne McIntosh, a Canadian working with Nalini. The following summer, I tagged along with Zoe Lindo, a Phd student at the University of Victoria, into the Walbran Valley on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where she was studying canopy mites in western redcedars. These three women became my canopy goddesses. They patiently answered my millions of questions, let me observe and photograph them at work, showed me how to rig a tree and most importantly, took me up into the trees on ropes. A fascinating, exhilarating and terrifying experience. I went as high as 40 metres, about the height of a 12 storey building and discovered the wonderful moss and lichen world that I describe in the book. The researchers I was with were climbing twice as high, appearing like spiders dangling from their webs against the giant trees. Zoe Lindo spent an afternoon with me in her lab showing me how to identify and slide mount a mite, and regaling me with mite facts. There really is a mite named Cyrtozetes lindoae.
The people who gather to set up the blockade are a motley crew. Was this diversity simply realistic, or a tactic to deliver a commentary on actions like theirs?
I have to laugh at this question. You can’t live in a tent with no washing facilities for more than a few days without qualifying as motley. But yes, the diversity of activists in the book is a reflection of the reality of most protests. The Otter Valley blockade was reminiscent of the many anti-clearcutting protests that have occurred in BC over the last few decades, the most high profile being the Clayoquot Sound blockade in the early 90’s, the biggest protest in Canadian history. Over 10000 people from around the world participated and over 900 people from children to grandmothers from all walks of life stood on the road to prevent the logging of the forests in the Sound and were arrested and charged with contempt of court for their civil disobedience. The protest resulted in the designation of Clayoquot Sound as a Biosphere Reserve. Protests like this, including tree-sits, continue today. I tried to capture this diversity in the minor characters—Mary and her children, the students from UBC, the militant Cougar, Mr. Kimori, Marcel, Grace and her friend Esther.
Many of the crucial incidents in the plot are later tidily resolved—Faye’s baby, for example, and custody of Rainbow. Why did you leave the identity of Paul’s assailant a mystery?
I’m not sure that I would agree that these issues are tidily resolved. Faye was left single parenting a child who faced potential health problems and delayed development, and another child whose mother could return at any time and challenge custody. There’s no guarantee her new research site would be spared from logging in the long term. But I’m one of those people who likes happy endings, so for the moment, Faye’s life at the end of the book had come to some state of stability and perhaps happiness. She is haunted though about the role she played in the loss of Paul, as well as the lack of resolution on the identity of his assailant. The decision to leave the identity of his assailant a mystery was largely made on intuition and I think was realistic. The protest and mass arrests and trials overshadowed the relatively minor matter, at least in the eyes if the police, of who shot Paul. The feedback from readers so far about this has been mixed. Some are dying to know ‘who dunnit’. Others say that by the end of the book it no longer matters to them. In the end, isn’t it the clear-cutting that deals the final blow? And I have to confess, I myself don’t know who did it. I have my suspicions … but hey, isn’t this supposed to be my book? It’s a wonderful thing when the creative process takes over and leaves the author in the dust.
It seemed to me that this story had a lot to say about the value we place on things and people. Was this your intention, or am I reading something into it that isn’t really there?
I’m not sure what the question is asking here. The story is certainly about relationships, our relationship with each other, with the planet we live on, the trees, the forests, and even our relationship with ourselves. The value we place on these relationships determines the choices we make in life. Or, in the case of the novel, the choices the characters, in particular Faye, make throughout the course of the book. She comes to value her smallness more than she had at the beginning of the story.
Would it be accurate to say that this novel is a hymn to biodiversity?
Absolutely, although I use the word tribute rather than hymn which to me has a religious connotation. More specifically I think of it as a tribute to big trees and small people. The biodiversity of the forest ecosystem, the interconnectedness and beauty of all the components, is something I wanted to illuminate. And don’t forget, humans are part of biological diversity in the same way as a tree or a mite. When Faye travels to Seattle to the Little People’s conference she thinks about the implications of genetic testing for dwarfism on the diversity of people. What would the world be like without people of short stature, without the full range of human diversity? A human monoculture?
I gather that you are on a Green reading tour at the moment. Tell us something about that concept. You’re not cycling between gigs, are you?
Now that would be a truly Green book tour and would be a lot of fun but I only had a couple of weeks so I wouldn’t get very far, although I’d be in pretty good shape, trailing a cart full of books across the Rockies. When I was thinking about doing a book tour, I balked at flying from city to city to promote a book that had an environmental theme and was printed on 100% recycled ancient forest friendly paper, and certified by FSC (Forest Sustainability Certification). So I did some enquiries and found some sponsors who were keen on the idea of a green carbon-neutral tour. Yes, I drove from Vancouver to Edmonton and back which doesn’t appear particularly green on the surface, but Volkswagen donated the use of a new Jetta clean diesel that has a fuel consumption of about 5 litres of fuel per 100 km. Offsetters, a Vancouver company that supports carbon offset projects, for example installing heat pump systems in schools to replace oil furnaces, offset the fuel I did buy which made the tour carbon-neutral for fuel consumption. There was a lot of appreciation amongst audiences throughout the tour for the concept. I’m going out east in the fall for readings and while it is too far to drive (or cycle) in the time I have, I will offset my flights to carry on the effort to travel as softly on the earth as possible.
Your website hints that you are continuing the ecological groove with two new novels, one involving orcas and the other, snakes. Anything you’re prepared to reveal about them at this stage? (Don’t worry, we know it can all turn out completely different!)
The killer whales of the southern Strait of Georgia resident population are considered the most polluted mammals on earth, contaminated with PCBs, DDT, lead, mercury and many other chemicals and heavy metals. This fact is both a tragedy and a signal that we must make some about faces in the way we treat the oceans, and inspired my desire to write about this in a novel. Woven into the ecological story is a human health story, the slow disintegration of a family when their daughter is diagnosed with schizophrenia. I’m fairly early on in the development of the novel but I wouldn’t be surprised if I discovered some links between the two issues.
I confess I am an ophidiophobe which means I have an irrational fear of snakes. As a biologist, this phobia has long embarrassed me. I took my young son out with me once to catch garter snakes from the shores of a nearby pond so I could accustom myself to handling them but I didn’t last long. Maybe writing a novel will accomplish the task. I find I need to write something humorous once in a while in between books about grief, tragedy and environmental disasters. In the Hands of Anubis was such a book. How about snakes and sisters? These two topics, when mentioned in the same breath, invariably elicit a laugh from women. It should be fun.
Ann Eriksson is the author of In the Hands of Anubis (2009) and Decomposing Maggie (2003). She was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in the Prairie provinces, eventually migrating to the West Coast. Ann lives with her husband, poet Gary Geddes, on Thetis Island and in Victoria. Visit www.anneriksson.ca
An excerpt from Falling From Grace, by Ann Eriksson, 2010. Printed with permission by Brindle & Glass Publishing.
I met Paul at the end of a long fruitless day of interviews. When he walked through the door into my office, I could have sworn I smelled cedar boughs, as if he trailed the forest into the room after him. I found myself reluctant to let go of his calloused fingers, which reminded me of the texture of bark. The way he folded his tall, lanky body into the chair gave me the distinct impression he didn’t belong indoors. His first words: “I’m thrilled to meet you, Dr. Pearson.”
“You have a great reputation.” His eyes were the same dusty shade of green as the lichen Lobaria.
“I work in a great field,” I answered, painfully aware of my reputation. The previous applicant had left no illusions, a farm boy from the Fraser Valley, his interview promising, until he asked if he would have to do all the climbing because of “your arms, you know.” “No, I don’t know,” I shot back. “What’s wrong with my arms?” I regretted the flush of embarrassment on his face. The irony of a person like me studying microscopic bugs at the top of massive trees does not escape me. I could imagine his skepticism. After all, I stood no higher than his navel, my feet propped on a stool under my desk. But I was tired of explaining myself, educating the ignorant. And I expected civility. He tripped over his own feet as he left the office. I scrawled a giant red NO! across the farm boy’s application form and filed it in the trash. I wished I were up a tree hunting for bugs. A task much less taxing than finding a suitable assistant.
“You’ve done a remarkable amount of research.” I flipped through Paul’s resumé, impressed by his credentials. “Arborist by training?”
“Tell me about your last position.”
“I climbed for Nadkarni on her cloud forest project in Costa Rica,” he answered. “We studied epiphytes.”
Plants that grow on plants. “Nalini’s a close friend of mine.” I smiled, my train of thought sidetracked when he smiled back. I forced myself again to the sheets of paper on the desk in front of me. “Eucalyptus forest in Tasmania, marbled murrelet nest sites in Oregon and Washington, arboreal lichens in Alaska,” I read with approval. “Contracts in Chile, Argentina, Ecuador. Impressive.”
“Climbing, yes.” He shifted in his chair. “But I’m no scientist. I have no degrees. You’re the pioneer.”
“Yes, well, no more than my colleagues elsewhere.” I fiddled around with the pen in my hand, flustered by the unexpected praise, and closed the folder. “I need a skilled technical climber. You’re more than qualified.” I took a breath and asked him the one question I really cared about. “How do you feel about working with me?”
He blinked, wrinkled his forehead, stroked a wispy, fledgling beard, and considered my question for a moment. “Not a problem.” He leaned forward. Flecks of gold in his irises caught the light. “I’m surprised you asked. It would be an honour to work with you.”
I excused myself and put a note on the door. Research Assistant Position Filled.
If I had known what would happen, I never would have hired him.
Essay Date: 2010, Wordworks